As the calls for greater police accountability have grown louder across the country, one of the most consistent and effective barriers to change is the power of police unions. The power of these unions is usually linked to their potential to sway the local elections that typically have the most effect on police policies, but an often-overlooked facet of police union power is the money they spend to defend officers who are accused of misconduct or a crime.
This aspect of police union operations has recently received some attention because of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd. Chauvin, and the other three officers charged in Floyd’s death, are members of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. This union has hundreds of thousands of dollars set aside for the potential legal defense of more than 10,000 Minnesota cops.
Across the U.S., police have access to other associations dedicated to providing legal assistance. The Peace Officers Research Association of California (“PORAC”) counts 135,000 members across all 50 states and has $39 million reserved in its Legal Defense Fund. This group has spent $170 million defending police officers since 2007 and, as of December 2020, was assisting in 129 active criminal cases against cops.
Brian Marvel, president of PORAC, was unapologetic. “Whether the case costs $100,000 or $1,000,000 to defend, we keep our long-standing promise of never skimping when our members’ lives and careers are on the line.”
But some critics believe the ability of cops to retain top dollar lawyers is part of the problem. “It’s part of a broader system that shields officers who commit misconduct from accountability,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, who studies police accountability issues at the police reform organization Campaign Zero.
There is also the additional problem of how intertwined police unions are in the politics of the legal system itself. PORAC spent $1.6 million on political campaigns in California from 2011 to 2017, including three-quarters of a million on one Los Angeles district attorney’s race alone. That elected prosecutors or judges might be swayed by the presence of an attorney hired by such a politically active organization has the potential to tip the scale even further in an accused officer’s favor.
While Chauvin was found guilty, it is still unclear what the long-term outcome of the police reform movement will be. What is clear is that the opposition to change will be vocal and well-funded.
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